The Blank Slate is a Man-Made Myth

The Blank Slate is a Man Made Myth or Trying to Avoid the ‘Bad Movie Trailer Voiceover’ Effect when Writing about Artemisia Gentileschi

Rachel McCrum is a poet and performer now living in Montreal, Quebec via Edinburgh, Manchester and Northern Ireland. Her first collection, The First Blast To Awaken Women Degenerate, is now available from Freight Books. On Friday 21 July, Rachel presents Beyond Artemisia, an after-hours spoken word performance celebrating Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the undoubted stars of Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery.

Rachel McCrum (2016) by Colin Usher (Studio Faire)
Susannah and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi, courtesy The Burghley House Collection

The Bad Movie Trailer Voiceover Effect is, at least in my ears, the one where a resonant, usually male, voice, over a trailer for the soft focus biopic of some long-dead artist or another, intones something like 'Mother...Artist...Survivor...'.

And the point is, these identities are true in the case – in the life - of Artemisia Gentilesche. All these and many more, and it's how she wove these identities into her art, into the enormous – and cannily commercial, for 17th century Italy – Biblical paintings of violence and vengeance, of female resistance that demonstrates a self-awareness resistant to reduction to a list of symbolic roles.

Like Frida Kahlo, like Sylvia Plath, like other female artists now held up as celebrities, Artemisia Gentileschi constantly runs the risk of her biography becoming more famous than her art.

In the course of researching Gentileschi’s work and life, I discovered that the event of her rape, at the age of 18 years by a painter friend of her father, was often, inevitably, foregrounded. For example, a New York Times article from 2002 states with cloth-eared certainty that:

And of course I’m doing the exact same thing. Foregrounding it.

What links Kahlo, Plath and Gentileschi, for me and I think for most of us as observers, as voyeurs, is that their lives, the violence they suffered  - Kahlo’s brutal accident, Plath’s fight for her identity as a poet, Gentileschi’s treatment at the hands of men surrounding her – became the subject of their art, their exploration, and their vindication.

We think, at least. Or we question…To what end did these women take their identity into their own hands? We see catharsis, I think. But do we also see revenge? Do we see a pragmatic survival? Do we observers, we voyeurs, have the capacity to see all these things at once? We reduce these women, these artists, to mere symbols, often to suit our own agendas, whether political or personal.

To attempt to respond, artistically, to another artist is always a question of ethics. I’m not an art historian nor a painter nor a rape survivor. For me to attempt to speak as Artemisia Gentileschi, the woman and the artist, is speculative hubris. Better to acknowledge her as symbol rather than speak for the woman. And, as it turns out, she appears to have already done this for me.

Amongst the 40 works available online, and beyond the startling strength of her Susanna and Judith paintings, I found myself returning repeatedly to her 1630 Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi © Royal Collection Trust

At a time when women were more often subject – or, worse, muse – than painter, here Gentileschi puts herself (knowingly, surely, after a long, successful career as a sought-after painter) in both positions at once: as cipher, symbol, allegory, and as painter, mistress, artist.

Maybe this will change someday. Maybe I’ve got all this completely wrong. Maybe this is more about me than about Artemisia Gentileschi. Probably. I’m sorry, Artemisia. I’m claiming you here as the symbol who knows they are a symbol. Who uses that knowledge to further their art, their work, their survival, their multiple identities, asking us to hold and acknowledge all that they are.